Ecologists Dread New Dam Boom

Xu Donghuan
Thursday, February 10, 2011

Originally published in Global Times

On the night of August 18 last year after days of torrential rain had soaked the steep mountain slopes, a mudslide struck a remote village in the northwest tip of Yunnan Province, killing 92 villagers.

"I was woken up in the middle of the night by a loud bang of rolling rocks and I ran outside with my family," 27-year-old villager Yu Lichun told the Xinhua News Agency the next morning.

"When we reached the road, the mud was already up to our knees. It was lucky all my family made it to safety."

Others were less fortunate: Another villager Zhou Shunfang told the Yunnan Information News she lost eight family members to the slide.

Although officially cleared of any wrongdoing, an iron mine that sits too close to the riverbed two kilometers upstream on a tributary of the Nujiang River was blamed for blocking the river flow and causing havoc. Large mining machinery including 40 trucks from the plant was swept away into the river.

"When morning light broke, we could only see the tip of the mine in the floodwater," He Shilong, a villager who lived across the river, told Xinhua.

The mud flow - up to five meters thick - carried 600,000 cubic meters of debris and inundated homes and roads in an area of nearly seven square kilometers. Upstream from the debris, river levels were six meters higher than normal.

The site of a 300-meter-high dam in the early stages of planning 30 kilometers downstream at the Maji hydroelectric plant on the Nujiang River, remained largely intact.

Days after the deadly mudslide, the government of the Nujiang Prefecture found 750 mudslide-prone sites of about 20 square kilometers each in its 14,700-square-kilometer territory.

Less than six months after the tragic night, a two-story high rock that had been swept down from the mountains during the mudslide, was placed at the center of a memorial site for the lives buried under the debris.

"You have to stand in awe of the power of nature," said Guo Yuhua, a sociologist from Tsinghua University who visited the site in early December. "We humans must be out of our mind, wishing to harness nature."

Earthquake fears

This seems exactly what the country's dam builders are still trying to do. In 2003, a proposal to build 13 dams on the Nujiang River was submitted to the National Development and Reform Commission, just one month after UNESCO listed the river as a World Heritage site. Premier Wen Jiabao called off the project in April 2004 saying it should be "seriously reviewed and decided scientifically.''

China's southwest, loosely known as the greater Shangri-la region, is famous for its water. For years hydropower companies in China have been eyeing the potential of rivers here, generated by steep drops in elevation along their course.

Attempts to penetrate the region have been foiled over the last five years by the country's en-vironmentalists effectively lobbying the government to tighten its approval policy.

Between 2008 and 2009, not a single major hydropower project was given the green light by Beijing, resulting in less than one third of proposed projects in the nation's 11th Five-Year Plan (2006 - 10) beginning construction.

With large hydroelectric projects on ice, smaller projects that do not need State Council approval have multiplied on the tributaries in the Southwest.

"They are as dense as the stars on the sky," said Wang Jian, a river specialist from Beijing who visited sections of the major rivers in December.

Sixty tributaries around the Nujiang Prefecture have been dammed, local officials told the Economic Observer in April. Forty-two hydropower projects have been completed. Another 88 are in the pipeline.

"These sub-standard small hydroelectric stations can trigger landslides and are a great threat to the local ecological system," Wang said.

His worries are shared by Yu Xiaogang, a renowned river management specialist and founder of the non-governmental group Green Watershed in Yunnan.

Yu is known for his successful campaign over the years to protect the trunk of the Nujiang River from being dammed. In his view, building dams on the Nujiang River can trigger not only mudslides, but earthquakes.

"The Nujiang River valley sits right on a fault line," he said. "Building dams disturbs the mountains and is very risky."

A potentially deadly link between the earthquake in Wenchuan in 2008 and the Zipingba Dam just 17 kilometers from the epicenter has been pointed out by Fan Xiao, the chief engineer of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau in Chengdu.

Fan fears history repeating itself as the four Nujiang River dams downstream from the prefecture seat of Liuku are within a high-frequency earthquake zone.

As the 12th Five-Year-Plan for 2011-2015 approaches, environmentalists fear the government may lift the ban on large dams.

The approval on July 8 of the long-stalled construction of Jin'anqiao hydropower station on the Jinsha River, upstream of the Yangtze River, and the Zangmu hydropower station on the Yarlung Zangbo River in the Tibet Autonomous Region, has been widely interpreted as a clear signal.

Full steam ahead

The target is to construct hydropower stations with an installed capacity of 83 million kilowatts, according to the Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design for the Ministry of Water Resources.

"There is little chance that we will not meet our target this time," said Zhang Boting, vice-general secretary of China Hydropower Engineering Society and a leading advocate for China's dam builders.

"Over the years, it has become clear that the accusations from the environmentalists are not based on facts.

"Building hydropower stations actually helps protect the rivers and the environment."

China's pledge to generate 15 percent of its power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020 will inevitably play a significant role in the government's thinking about hydropower projects.

"China's stance on large hydropower projects goes with the pressure from the International community for us to keep to our promise on carbon emission reduction," Zhang said.

Lifting the ban on hydropower projects for the sake of reducing carbon emissions is too big a sacrifice to make, environmentalists argue.

"If the government approves the target, it means we will build one Three Gorges Dam every year for the next five years," Yu said.

Dai Qing, a veteran journalist and author from Beijing, believes that what's going on in China shows that China is always one step behind the world.

"In many Western countries, dam builders are out of favor," she said. "But here in China, we are still busy building dams."

When the country's legislators meet on March 5 for the annual National's People's Congress, environmentalists know it will probably be their last chance to raise concerns about the dam boom in southwestern China.

"We are very concerned about the rush to build so many hydropower stations across almost every river in the Southwest," said Wang Yongchen, founder of Green Earth, a leading non-governmental group specializing in the protection of China's rivers. "This is overexploitation and chaotic exploitation."

An emergency report is being drafted and a separate letter to Premier Wen Jiaobao is also nearing completion.

"We need to bring the decision-making process into the sunlight," Yu said. "The public has the right to know the risks of some projects of our 12th Five-Year Plan."

Fast facts: A history of China dam catastrophes

On August 9, 1960, the newly-built Qiaodun Reservoir in Zhejiang Province collapsed during a typhoon. Built and sealed in a rush in March that year, the dam had stood at 39 meters tall, three meters above the water level when a typhoon hit in early June. Locals were hastily mobilized to elevate the height of the dam. Then when a second typhoon hit on August 9, the dam collapsed, killing at least 500 people. Some records say the death toll was 4,000. After the flood, the 100-year-old town of Qiaodun was afloat with corpses.

On August 8, 1963, after a week of heavy downpours in the upper reaches of the southern branch of the Haihe River, Liujiatai Dam, built in 1958 at the height of the Great Leap Forward near Baoding in Hebei Province, collapsed in a "one-in-20-year" flood. In 30 minutes, 40 million cubic meters of water at a rate of 28,000 cubic meters a second, rushed out of the reservoir. Some 948 people were killed, 67,000 houses damaged and more than 1,400 hectares of farmland destroyed.

On July 31, 1971, the nine-month-old Hutai Reservoir in Fushun, Liaoning Province, collapsed during a "one-in-60-year" flood, killing 512 people. At a height of 21 meters and storage capacity of 4.6 million cubic meters, the reservoir had allegedly been designed to withstand a "one-in-500-year" flood.

On August 8, 1975, Banqiao Dam, built on the Ruhe River in 1952 at Zhumadian, Henan Province as part of a flood-prevention and electricity-production program aimed at controlling the Yellow River, collapsed. At a height of 118 meters and with a storage capacity of 492 million cubic meters, it was designed to withstand a "one-in-1,000-year" flood. The Shimantan Dam on the Honghe River, the second-largest in the flood-prevention system, and two other smaller reservoirs also failed that day: 26,000 people died in the floods, according to the official death toll. After the flood receded, 145,000 people died from epidemics and from famine. Some estimates put the total death toll at more than 220,000. The number of people affected by the disaster exceeded 12 million. A Discovery Channel show on May 28, 2005, rated the Banqiao Dam collapse No.1 on a list of the "Top 10 Technological Catastrophes of the World," beating the Bhopal toxic gas leak in India on December 3, 1984, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident on April 26, 1986.

On August 29, 1993, the less than two-year-old Gouhou Reservoir in Qinghai Province collapsed, killing 328 and leaving 40 missing.

Fast facts: China & dams

China has more than 25,800 large dams, more than any other country in the world

These projects have relocated more than 10 million people from their homes and land

Chinese banks and companies in recent years have been involved in constructing some 269 dams in 67 different countries, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia. They include Kamchay Dam in Cambodia, Mphanda Nkuwa Dam in Mozambique, Merowe Dam in Sudan and Tasang Dam in Myanmar

Dammed, diverted and polluted, China's rivers are reaching an ecological tipping point

Source: US-based International Rivers